Atlanta council member considering bill for training center referendum

Atlanta City Council member Liliana Bakhtiari is considering introducing legislation at the council meeting next Monday to put the question of the city’s proposed public safety training center on the ballot in November.

The potential legislative path to a referendum comes after organizers attempted to submit more than 116,000 petition signatures to the municipal clerk’s office this week, just to be told the city would not start the validation process.

Sources on the city council say the ballot question as described in the legislation is: Should the city discontinue work on the public safety training center project in the South River Forest and relocate the facility to another location within city limits?

On Monday, dozens of people involved in the petition drive — also an effort to put the question of the training center to voters — lugged boxes of signed forms to City Hall. But that effort, months-long, grassroots attempt to gather enough signatures from registered Atlanta voters to force the referendum ended in confusion.

City officials said that they would take custody of the petition forms but would not start the 50-day validation process pending a legal decision.

In July, a federal court judge sided with opponents and extended the collection timeline, giving organizers a significant edge. But earlier this month, an appeals court pressed pause on that ruling, which caused confusion about whether or not signatures collected after the original 60-day timeline can be counted.

Pending a final decision by the appeals court, the city said it won’t start verifying the tens of thousands of signatures — a move which took organizers and City Council members by surprise.

Bakhtiari, who represents east Atlanta, said that a ballot referendum would “provide every Atlanta voter the opportunity to make their voice heard” regardless of their position on the issue.

“I am deeply disturbed over the lack of transparency and procedural barriers that have marred the public’s ability to petition the government for redress,” she said.

It is unclear how much support the proposal has on the council.

After more than 14 hours of public comment in June, the council OK’d funding for the project in a 10-4 vote. Bakhtiari as well as Jason Dozier, Antonio Lewis and Keisha Sean Waites voted against it.

Waites released a statement this week saying she will support her colleague’s effort to bypass legal proceedings and put the referendum on the ballot in November. Waites cited the uncovered additional cost of the project to taxpayers — bringing the public price tag to $67 million through a lease-back agreement — as money that could be spent elsewhere.

“The actual taxpayer cost of the proposed facility will be closer to $67 million, which many constituents consider irresponsible and disrespectful,” she said in a statement. “The democratic process provides every citizen the right to have recourse in questioning and rejecting the decisions of its elected leaders.”

City Council members, Waites said, should always support Atlanta residents “using legal and peaceful means to effect positive change.”

Training center opponents were back at City Hall on Thursday imploring council members to listen to voters.

“We are here to say, to the City Council in particular, you can start the verification process but you can also have a referendum process through your own vote,” said Kamau Franklin, with the group Community Movement Builders.

Staff write Jozsef Papp contributed to this report.


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